The outer physical signs of aging are obvious (think: stiffer joints and looser skin). But there are also inner transformations taking place in your body that are less noticeable, such as the shift in your body's nutrient needs.
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During your golden years, these nutrient requirements change a lot, and being able to accommodate them is essential to a healthy aging process.
We spoke with Jennifer Bruning, RDN, a dietitian with expertise in nutrition for older adults, to understand how your nutrient needs evolve as you do, plus ways you can adapt to ensure you stay fit as a fiddle into your twilight years.
1. You Need Less Iron
After menopause, you'll likely require less iron. That's because when you no longer lose blood during monthly menstruation, circulating iron levels stay more consistent (so you need to replace less of it in your diet), Bruning says.
"However, some older people may be prone to iron deficiency due to absorption issues or low appetite [more on this later]," she adds.
Fix It: "Talk with a doctor or registered dietitian about the foods you can eat that contain iron and whether or not you might need a supplement," Bruning says.
2. You’re More Prone to Dehydration
Getting enough water is essential for your body to function properly, as it helps keep joints lubricated and regulate body temperature, among other things, according to the Cleveland Clinic. So dehydration — which is a common cause of hospitalization in older folks — can pose a dangerous health risk.
Bruning tells us that dehydration can happen in older people for many reasons, such as:
- Less sensitivity to the sensation of thirst
- A tendency to drink less fluid to decrease bathroom trips when dealing with mobility issues or urinary incontinence
- The need to restrict fluids due to various health conditions (for example, heart failure)
Fix It: "Drink fluids throughout the day even if you don't feel thirsty," Bruning says.
Make a point of sipping H2O every time you pass the sink to wash dishes, rinse fresh produce or clean your hands. If plain water isn't your thing, add fresh fruit to make it tastier or opt for herbal tea, she says.
"And if you need to follow a fluid restriction, work with your MD on the best way to get all your fluids in a day without going over the limit," Bruning adds.
3. You Need Fewer Calories
A slowing metabolism is the main reason why your body needs fewer calories as you age, Bruning says. This decreased metabolism is directly related to age-related muscle loss (known as sarcopenia), according to the Colorado State University Extension.
After the age of 30, you can lose as much as 5 percent of muscle per decade, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Couple this decline of muscle mass with more mobility issues and other age-related health concerns that limit physical activity, and you can see why your caloric needs drop with age, Bruning says. When your body is moving less, it simply requires less energy.
But the fewer calories you take in, the fewer opportunities your body has to fill up on necessary nutrients — and this can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Fix It: Be strategic about what goes on your plate. Eating nutrient-dense foods (focusing on these nutrients for longevity) will help you get the vital vitamins and minerals you need even if you're getting fewer calories, per the Colorado State University Extension.
Plus, "preserving lean muscle mass is a great way to maintain a higher metabolism," Bruning says. "Doing so will not only help protect you from injury and falls but makes it easier to have a good appetite, which can lead to eating more and getting more of your daily nutrients."
One way to safeguard against sarcopenia is by eating enough protein, Bruning says.
Still, another strategy for building and maintaining muscle (as well as strengthening bones) is strength training. Before you start, talk to your doctor to discuss any health conditions and work with a personal trainer to design a program based on your individual needs and goals.
If you have kidney disease, make sure to speak with your doctor before adding more protein to your diet, Bruning says.
4. Your Appetite May Decrease
"This goes along with that decrease in metabolism," Bruning says.
"But on top of that, certain medications, health issues and taste changes can all contribute to feeling less hungry (or filling up faster)" when you're older, she explains. Once again, the problem is, if you're not eating enough, you could be lacking the essential nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.
Fix It: "Try eating small meals and snacks throughout the day," Bruning says. "If you're losing weight without meaning to, work with an RDN to develop a strategy for eating a bit more despite not feeling hungry."
5. Your Ability to Absorb Certain Nutrients Decreases
As you age, your ability to absorb and utilize certain nutrients becomes less effective, Bruning says. That's partly because your body produces fewer digestive substances, she explains. For example, older people may have a problem absorbing vitamin B12 due to decreased stomach acidity.
Similarly, some medications alter the way nutrients are absorbed or metabolized, according to Oklahoma State University. Anticonvulsants, for instance, can reduce folate absorption.
Fix It: "Sometimes simply eating more of certain foods can help meet nutrient needs," Bruning says.
In some cases, coupling specific foods together can be a smart way to get the right amount of nutrients. For instance, pairing foods containing iron with vitamin C-rich foods can help increase iron absorption, Bruning says.
Still, in other cases, some older folks may need supplementation. "Your doctor can help assess which nutrients your body may be lacking due to absorptive challenges," Bruning says.